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Myself and Aaron Cassidy

April 21, 2012

Well it’s Saturday, it’s raining again, and I’ve awarded myself the weekend off Cassidy-learning, so time to fill in some background to the project…

Aaron and I have known each other since almost the exact same time EXAUDI was starting up, in 2002. We both had pieces at Gaudeamus that year – his a work for amplified solo viola d’amore played by Garth Knox, mine a string quartet played by the late lamented Zephyr Quartet of Amsterdam. We clicked I think firstly because of an obvious shared interest in ‘complex’ music itself (at the time I was writing quite complex scores – albeit not anything like as fearsome-looking as Aaron’s – and studying with Michael Finnissy), but also because of what complexity as an ideal represented for us: devotion to a way of seeing the world that tries not to reduce or simplify things for the sake of consolation or an easy fix of escapism, but revels in its endless and perplexing variety, strangeness and undiscovered possibility. Complexity as an aesthetic is born of a determination to leave nothing out, to show the whole picture – an urge towards truth-telling and revelation – which I suppose is why those who practise it (mainly young men, one notices) feel a strong sense of shared, and definitely moral, purpose.

Clearly there is an element of the fetishistic (and, let’s be honest, more than a soupçon of testosterone) about the embrace of a notation and aesthetic as extreme as Aaron’s, but I was struck at Gaudeamus by his sheer self-awareness about what he was doing, that kept the music from ghettoising itself by becoming doctrinaire, self-mythologising or plain anoraky. He seemed really in command of the ramifications of the path he had chosen for himself, aware of how he fitted into the panorama of new (and old) music, what the limitations of writing like this were (not least in terms of potential collaborators) but also what the rewards could be.

In short, even back then you felt he had found his metier and was comfortable in his skin – and that it really was his skin. And for all that you could argue that choosing hyper-complexity as your ready-made field of activity is a clear case of aesthetic positioning designed to grab some sort of modernist moral high-ground plus maximum notoriety (take note, legions of Cassidy-imitators…), the fact is that Aaron’s work over the last decade or so has shown the limitations of that judgement in his case. He has pursued his own path, done things that other ‘hyper-complex’ composers have not, and never lost sight of the art amidst the mind-boggling technical advances. You can’t caricature real art, and I’d seriously recommend to anyone tempted to force Aaron’s work into some sterile pigeonhole that they do some more listening, especially to the latest stuff. I find the music interesting both to think about and to listen to, mind-stretching, really imaginative and very cool. What’s not to like?!

So obviously as EXAUDI grew up, and my friendship with Aaron continued (he still owes me a lot of malt whisky but I’m subtracting it from the commission fee) I knew we had to have a piece from him at some stage. Aaron has known the EXAUDI gang for a long time as well – he has produced almost all of our recordings – and a mutual respect has developed between us all as we worked our way through arduous sessions on Fox, Skempton, Nono, Scelsi, Rihm, Finnissy… (As an aside, what endears me to Aaron most of all is how deep his knowledge of ‘the repertoire’ (I really mean all of it, not just contemporary or indeed Western or indeed art music) is and how catholic his tastes are, from Vivaldi to Wandelweiser. There’s nothing worse than a composer who doesn’t know further back than Stockhausen – there’s a shallowness to their music and you can really hear it. Which is not to say none of us has our blind-spots…)

Finally, we got our chance when our bid to the PRS for Music Foundation’s New Music 20×12 project for the Cultural Olympiad was successful. What more Olympian a challenge for us than an ensemble work from Aaron Cassidy? And what more Herculean a challenge for him than a piece for eight voices on such a prestigious stage?

Next up: the EXAUDI perspective.

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